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April 2, 2010

An agitated  colleague burst into my office about a week ago and began to rant and rave about the “complete lack of leadership around here.”  At first I thought that this tirade was directed at me as president of the faculty senate.  What had I done to upset him? What hadn’t I done?    But when he asked why are we paying these people the big bucks, I suddenly realized that I was off the hook.  Whoever “these people” were (and there are a lot of possibilities these days — president, pope, governor, bank ceos, etc), I was not one of them.  It soon became clear that his ire was directed at the university’s administration, our president, provost and deans.  As far as he was concerned, they were not showing any leadership when it came to dealing with the university’s budget problems.  When I asked him to elaborate, he just reiterated his opening remarks,  “They are not doing anything. There is a complete lack of leadership around here”

This would come as big news to the president, provost and deans, all of whom have spent much of their time dealing with budget problems created by the Great Recession.  Among other things, they have sent many memos and letters and have had university- and college-wide  open forums to update faculty and staff about our budget situation and proposed solutions.   After reminding him about various budget memos and open forums, he had to concede that they had, in fact, made some effort to keep faculty and staff  up to date on the latest budget developments.   The problem, he said, was that the budget story kept changing and no two administrators ever said the same thing.  Before he finally left, he became a little more specific, “No one in the administration seems to have a vision of what the university should look like in the future.”

After he was gone, I began to reflect about his perception that we  lack  leaders.  How do faculty judge the effectiveness of our administrators as leaders.  Faculty perceptions are presumably based on some  direct or indirect experience  of the behavior of administrators.    What kind of interactions has my agitated colleague  had with the deans, provost, and president?   Very little as far as I am aware.  In fact as far as I know,  it has been mostly through budget memos and open forums.    Why did he believe, based on these limited interactions, that we had no leaders?  What did he think a good leader should have been doing?  What are the characteristics of good leader?

Leadership is much studied, and there are numerous books, scholarly papers, and magazine articles on this topic.   It seems to be particularly fascinating topic to people in business, judging from the number of books on it in the business sections of bookstores.  Evidently, you can become a great business leader by emulating anyone from Attila the Hun to Mary Poppins.  Academic leadership has also been studied, and, based on a brief peek into this more limited literature, there is a great deal of debate about the most effective leadership  style (autocratic vs. collaborative), the significance of gender differences, the best leadership style at different levels  of the university hierarchy, etc.  In short, there is, not surprisingly, no consensus on the characteristics of effective university leaders.  Within an institution, there may even be significant disagreement among different units  about whether a given administrator is or is not an effective leader.

One point that is repeatedly made is that cultural values can have a big impact on how effective university leaders are perceived to be.   To be more specific, faculty in different academic disciples have different cultures and thus different expectations of their leaders.  Research scientists whose lives revolve around obtaining grants, recruiting and training graduate students and postdocs, and publishing as many papers per year as possible judge their leaders differently than scholars in the humanities who teach large number of undergraduates, rely little on external funding, and view scholarship as a multi-year effort to research and write a book.  These disciplinary differences have been described as self-amplifying by Clark (1989) in his classic paper, The Academic Life:  Small Worlds, Different Worlds.   As Clark stressed, faculty in the physical sciences, biological sciences, social sciences, the humanities and the arts within the same university have different perceptions of  their professio0nal identities as well as having different reward systems and valuing different kinds of professional linkages.  Is the lack of leadership perceived by my colleague due to cultural miscues ?   He is a biologist and none of our senior administrators are.  Are too many distinct disciplinary cultures really the root of the leadership perception problem?  I don’t think so.

In spite of a myriad of disciplinary cultures, faculty expectations about what constitutes leadership transcends disciplinary differences.   All faculty want their leaders to be able to articulate their unit’s goals,  to have a plan for improving its quality,  to identify its major challenges, and to have plans for raising its academic standards and for recruiting higher quality faculty.   When my colleagues rants on and on about  a lack of leadership, he means that he doesn’t see any evidence that administrators are concerned about the the things with which he is primarily concerned.

Administrators will quickly counter that they are, in fact, concerned about all these things and that they are trying to make strategic budget cuts that will ensure that at least some units will have opportunities to improve their faculty and academic programs.  Nevertheless, the problem remains that their message is not being heard.  Why?  I believe it is because administrators communicate primarily in the language of fiscal management, which is largely irrelevant and thus largely ignored by faculty.  For faculty fiscal management is not the primary job of  leaders.  For administrators, with the adoption of responsibility centered management (read budget) models,  fiscal management has increasingly become the central part of their job.

The budget memos that administrators spent so much time crafting remind me of the letters that you get from your doctor reminding you that are scheduled to have a colonoscopy.   Both contain an important message that you can’t ultimately ignore.  Like budget memos, these letters are impersonal and they create a lot of anxiety.   They both signal much discomfort in your future.  As with colonoscopies, dealing with budget reductions involves two distinct phases:  (1) preparing for the  procedure, which is much worse and more mentally disturbing than the actual procedure, and (2) finding out the results of the procedure — are your problems over or are they really just about to begin.   The doctor who recently sent me a reminder letter is managing my health care.  He is not, however, providing medical leadership.  Likewise, the administrator who sends us memos on the latest twist in our budget crisis is not providing leadership.  He or she is managing the fiscal health of the institution.   This is essential, and our administrators are doing a more or less adequate job of it.  As with letters announcing upcoming colonoscopy appointments, budget memos tend to be put aside and ignored until they have to be acted on.  (I am having a colonoscopy tomorrow and have yet to go to a pharmacy to buy the “preparations” needed for this procedure.)

Leadership is a social interaction.  For social interactions at a university to be effective, there needs to be meaningful communications between administrators and faculty and staff.   One dimensional communications, medical or fiscal,  are never going result in their senders being perceived as leaders.  As long as administrators continue to communicate primarily in a language that  faculty would rather ignore, faculty perceptions of their effectiveness  as leaders will continue to decline.

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